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Sometimes, on the internet, particularly in online games, I see people using the indefinite article before someone's name: "I see a Joey" or "I hug a Polly". I know some of these people and I'm positive that they are from English-speaking countries, which means it is not a mistake, they do it intentionally.

I was always taught that articles are not used in front of people's names. Maybe it is some sort of slang? What does it mean, when the indefinite article is put in front of someone's name?

Edit: There is a group of people standing somewhere. And somebody, named Joey, appears. They all know Joey. And someone in this group says "I see a Joey". So it is used when someone sees his or her friend. But I don't understand why they use the indefinite article here.

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There are situations where you can put an a in, yes. For instance, if you ask me if I know someone named Jack, I can say "Yes, I know a Jack" when I'm not sure it's the same person. The examples in your question look contrived though, not to say wrong. –  Mr Lister Feb 18 '13 at 8:17
A joey is a baby kangaroo so that could be a play on words –  mplungjan Feb 18 '13 at 9:11
mplungjan: so it can be something to underline cuteness? –  Highstaker Feb 18 '13 at 9:13
Nah... I would possibly use it in fun if his name was really Joey, but I would probably be the thousand's person to do so –  mplungjan Feb 18 '13 at 9:14
Hmm, " They are using it in fun " may be the answer I'm looking for... though, I'm not sure –  Highstaker Feb 18 '13 at 9:21
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5 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted

More generally, using an article before a proper noun that doesn't have one built into it (as the United States and the Rolling Stones do) is one example of using a proper noun as a countable noun.

There are several reasons why we might do that normally. One is to say something like "there are three Johns in the group", meaning "there are three people called John in the group".

Another is to add distance to the identification; "I have a John Smith on the line" is a common expression for "I have someone on the line, who tells me he is John Smith, and that is all that is known about him". A similar is to report, e.g. "One John Smith is accused of the crime", emphasising that we have no further identifying details at present, and hence we are not stating precisely which person of that name is the subject of the sentence.

Another is to use a proper noun as an example of particular traits that could also be held by others (a type of synecdoche). "The next Bob Dylan" (a singer-songwriter from the folk scene who will repeat Dylan's success), "He's an Einstein" (he's very smart), "All Mozarts have their Salieris" (not really true even for Mozart and Salieri, but let's say we believed the film Amadeus was accurate).

Another, almost inverse to this, is to speak of the person or thing signified by the proper noun at a particular time, or from a particular perspective: "The London of a hundred years ago was a notoriously unhealthy place", "The John you know is not the John I know" (that could also mean you are talking of a literally different person, depending on context).

The above are reasonably standard, though figurative.

Another common variation is to jokingly make use of these forms, when one normally would not. If talking of a friend, we would generally use their name as a proper noun, because that's how names work in English, but since every person called George is "a George", and so on the form is logically correct, though not strictly good English. To use it of a friend could suggest that you have gotten as far as knowing it's a George, but not which one, or that George's are all alike and you've hence found someone who will have all the George-like qualities that George has. Both obviously are not sensible, but therein is the joke. Another variant would be if you were looking for George, and then spotted him. Again "ah, there's a George" would suggest that you'd were just looking for Georges generally, which again is not sensible, hence the joke.

All of these last cases are examples of deliberately bad English, used as a joke, rather than something that would normally be considered correct.

[A completely different case is when there's a word that is the same as a proper noun, but isn't a proper noun, of which some slang cases started as a proper noun and are hence sometimes capitalised.]

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Knowing people that use this, I may assume, that your last statement about it being jokingly used is the most plausible in this situation. –  Highstaker Feb 18 '13 at 10:30
It can be one of those deliberately-bad-English jokes that over-use can make slip out in inappropriate moments though. I've had that happen to me. (I make too many uses of such jokes that abuse language, I had to train myself out of jokingly calling Canada Canadia before visiting there, so I wouldn't sound like an idiot, and the proper noun-as-countable joke has the same problem. Likewise, personal name as noun adjunct where e.g. "Alice food" is food for Alice or that she particularly likes, or even worse "Jon food" which is food for myself; sounds like baby-talk at best, in most contexts). –  Jon Hanna Feb 18 '13 at 10:40
Great answer! If I might add another example – where the name is being used to express something generic, as in: the police arrested a John Doe last night, or the idiomatic keeping up with the Jones'. –  J.R. Feb 18 '13 at 10:56
@J.R. well, I've already blamed one John Smith for the crime! I'd say that a John Doe is closer to the case where a proper noun becomes a countable noun, rather than being treated as one, since it's specifically used of people whose name is unknown, it works slightly differently. –  Jon Hanna Feb 18 '13 at 10:58
Thanks for so eloquently explaining why I thought it deserved special mention! –  J.R. Feb 18 '13 at 11:01
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None of the existing answers seem to focus on the exact reason using for the article in OP's context.

It's nothing to do with the possibility of the speaker knowing any other Joeys or Pollys. It's a (usually, affectionate) "upgrading" of the specified name to identify an entire class of people, with the (facetious) implication that the actual Joey on the scene is the archetypal example of that class - in practice, often the only example known to the assembled company.

The net effect is to suggest that Joey exemplifies some particular qualities which are difficult to express other than by citing him as an example (cf Tony Blair's John is John, of John Prescott).

My favourite example of "elevating" someone's name to a general class is Tigger, singing:

But the most wonderful thing about Tiggers
Is I'm the only one.

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I disagree, they're not claimed archetypical, merely typical. (With Tiggers, archetypical and typical is the same thing, since he's the only one). –  Jon Hanna Feb 18 '13 at 22:33
@Jon Hanna: I know this is ELU, so theoretically all posts should exemplify precise use of language. But if you think that point justifies saying "I disagree" then frankly I have to say you're just being pedantic. –  FumbleFingers Feb 18 '13 at 22:37
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I think we’d need to see the full context of the examples you mention to know what was intended, but the indefinite article before a name, often with a further modifier, can show that the name is being used generically. You might see or hear, for example, He’s a right Charlie (a fool) or He’s a Norman Nomates (has no friends).

The definite article can also occur before a name, as in The John Harris I knew 15 years ago was not the John Harris I saw today.

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What a Wally... –  mplungjan Feb 18 '13 at 9:13
It's interesting to see you know (a?!) Norman Nomates. In my experience, (his brother?) Billy Nomates is far more "popular" :) –  FumbleFingers Feb 18 '13 at 21:36
@FumbleFingers. Norm has an alliterative advantage. –  Barrie England Feb 18 '13 at 21:45
@Barrie: He also has the advantage of being more accurately named, if we allow "popular" to cover both "liked" and "likely" [to be mentioned]. –  FumbleFingers Feb 18 '13 at 21:56
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It's also said when you know more than one person by that name, when saying "I know Jack' could mean your friend/brother, etc.

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You don't know Jack = "you do not know anything" –  mplungjan Feb 18 '13 at 9:12
Why exactly Jack? Why has this name become a part of an established phrase? –  Highstaker Feb 18 '13 at 12:12
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Whilst the answers below are all very earnest, I think the language here is a lot more contextual to online games and the kind of humour found within.

As an avid gamer myself, and particularly of Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (MMORPGs) it is a tradition for enemies (usually anonymous, generic, very temporary (i.e., able to be killed) non-player characters) to have these cursory descriptions, e.g.:

You see: a raider (He looks: almost dead)

You see: a mutated carrion ant (Fallout)

I think what you're seeing from your friends, rather than correct English (the fact it is incorrect is a joke) is just a bit of gamer humour, steeped as it always is in meta-referentiality (see also: memes, which are also frequently expressed in deliberately poor English).

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It's most certainly used outside of gamer humour. Indeed, while I know a good few gamers and am familiar with some of the running jokes, the people I can think of that use this bit of word-play are not gamers. (Now, if they saw a maze of twisty Alberts, all alike, that'd definitely be gamer humour). –  Jon Hanna Feb 18 '13 at 10:56
It happens not only in games, but also in social networks and so-called virtual worlds (such as Second Life and Cloud Party). So it doesn't always refer to gaming slang. The idea about joking and wordplay just for fun seems to be plausible though. –  Highstaker Feb 18 '13 at 12:06
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